September 6, 1946, release date
Directed by Irving Reis
Screenplay by John Paxton, Ben Bengal, Ray Spencer
Based on the short story “Madman’s Holiday” by Frederic Brown
Music by Leigh Harline
Edited by Frederic Knudtson
Cinematography by Robert De Grasse
Pat O’Brien as George Steele
Claire Trevor as Terry Cordell
Herbert Marshall as Traybin
Ray Collins as Dr. Lowell
Wallace Ford as Lieutenant Cochrane
Dean Harens as Reynolds
Damian O’Flynn as Stevenson
Erskine Sanford as Barton
Mary Ware as Mary
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Crack-Up is a film noir with almost every element of noir: flashbacks, amnesia, postwar intrigue, suspicious characters meeting under a streetlamp, characters who may or may not be trusted. The best part for me is that the story kept me guessing until the end (the intrigue and confusion work for me), so I am going to try my best not to give away any spoilers.
Crack-Up is in the public domain. Click here to watch it at the Internet Archive. The visual quality is best if you don’t watch the film full screen. It’s even better if you find a DVD version to buy or borrow.
The film opens with a train whistle. Then viewers see nighttime scenes of a train on the tracks, a close-up of a train passing by, a close-up of train wheels on a track, and so on, all behind the credits, which are on an upward slant. Then, after the credits, a train, with its headlight on, heads toward viewers, with people screaming on the soundtrack. (The shot on the big screen of 1946 movie theaters must have made quite an impression.) Then the film cuts to what at first looks like a passenger window breaking because someone is kicking it in, but it’s really a glass door that shatters. A man (George Steele) is breaking into the Manhattan Museum. He stumbles and falls just inside the doors. A police officer and another man help him up.
Right away, the film upsets viewers’ expectations. They know from the start that they cannot trust everything that they see.
George Steele interrupts a board meeting at the museum when he shatters the glass of its front doors. He insists to the police officer and all the board members that he was on a train and that he knew there was going to be a train wreck. When he woke up, he was at the museum. But there were no reports of a train wreck, per the officer interviewing Steele. Several people are present at the interview, and most of them are ready to doubt George Steele’s version of recent events.
Steele tells his story in flashback. It begins with him earlier in the day giving a lecture at the museum, one with a large audience. His lecture is interesting even for viewers today. He pokes fun at Salvador Dali, surrealism, and modern art in general. An audience member objects to Steele’s opinions, and the audience member is forced out of the museum, to the delight of other audience members.
The woman at the Manhattan Museum listening to Steele’s account is Terry Cordell. I couldn’t figure out who she was until the end of the film, and it’s not giving anything away to say that she is Steele’s girlfriend. For about half of the film, I couldn’t tell if she was his wife or just another museum employee. Either way, she is one of the characters that Steele and viewers begin to doubt. In fact, viewers can barely make sense of Steele’s account or figure out who are all the characters present in the museum to hear his story. It helps to see the film more than once. But part of the purpose of the narrative is to confuse everyone involved, including film viewers.
Another character listening to Steele’s account is Traybin. During World War II, Steele was a captain with the Allied Reparations Commission. He discovered serval forgeries in the Nazi collection, and Traybin recognizes him from his own work with the British group on the commission. After hearing Steele’s account, Traybin has a cryptic conversation with Lieutenant Cochrane, who is a police detective on hand to investigate. Viewers are left to wonder if perhaps Traybin and Cochrane are working to undermine Steele and his version of events, and why they would want to do so.
Traybin is played by Herbert Marshall. Click here for a review of the latest biography about him at the Classic Film Obsessions blog hosted by Jocelyn.
After telling his story and answering questions from the police, Steele is free to go. Terry Cordell accompanies him back to his office, which is ransacked. The mess seems to be yet another reason to think that someone is bent on getting something from Steele, and once again viewers are given more reason to doubt just about everything that they have seen so far.
The scene in Steele’s ransacked office is important for another reason. The title of the film is explained—quite clearly—for viewers. Steele tells Cordell, “See a lot of good guys crack up in this war [World War II]. Cool, composed cookies one day and the next, snap like a tight violin string. It’s the fear everybody had. You kept thinking, Might happen to me.”
Steele describes some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, although it wasn’t called that in 1946. He isn’t sure what to think because he might suffer from the traumatic effects of military life, but he is not going to let his own doubts stop him from finding out what happened before he kicked in the glass door at the Manhattan Museum.
All the confusion makes Crack-Up more intriguing. The film did a good job of placing George Steele and viewers in almost the same predicament: knowing that something happened but not being sure what it was and the reasons behind it all. I wanted to know how the narrative was going to answer all my questions:
◊ Why did Steele break the front door of the museum?
◊ Was he really on a train at all?
◊ If he is a respected lecturer at the Manhattan Museum, why would he have to break into the museum?
◊ Why do some of the characters doubt his story?
◊ Why should any of the characters believe his story?
◊ Who can Steele trust when he decides he has to find for himself what happened before he arrived at the museum?
Following Steele on his investigative journey is a lot of fun, and I enjoyed the film immensely. And Steele has one of the best noir lines I’ve ever heard:
• Terry Cordell: “You can’t expect to dodge the police indefinitely, George. Wouldn’t it be smarter to got to Cochrane and get this thing out in the open?”• George Steele: “About as smart as cutting my throat to get some fresh air.”